Strangers becoming siblings | August 20 | Anniversary Sunday

Text: Ephesians 2:11-22

Last month, at the Mennonite Church USA Convention in Orlando, there was a big timeline along one side of the delegate hall.  It was kind of like the one we have for CMC in the fellowship hall this weekend, but longer – in size and time span.  It was maybe 40 feet long, give or take.  It began in the 1500’s and led up to the present.  On it, were written key events in the Anabaptist and Mennonite story.  1525, Zurich Switzerland, the first adult baptisms.  1660; publication of the Martyrs Mirror, telling the stories of Christian martyrs through the ages;  1789, the first German speaking Mennonites settle in Catherine the Great’s Russia.  And so on.  We were about to begin the Future Church Summit, and denominational leaders wanted to help us remember where we had been before looking toward where we are going.

There was lots of open space on the timeline, with differently colored markers available for anyone who wanted to add a key event.  Walking through the centuries and reading the additions was a fascinating experience of what happens when you crowd source your collective history.  Alongside the more standard highlights of immigration waves, official church statements, and the creation of institutions, were less told stories, some painful.  Like the three boarding schools Mennonites used to run that tore Native American children from their families and culture.

A few people had felt unrestricted by the chronological range of the timeline, with someone writing at the very beginning, “And on the seventh day, God rested” and someone squeezing in even before that “Big bang.”  Someone else had extended the timeline forward two years to the next national gathering in 2019, writing “Membership Guidelines abolished by delegates.”  The Membership Guidelines currently in place call for the review of a pastor’s credentials who officiates at the wedding of a same-sex couple.

All in all, it was a lively space, a multi-layered snap shot of where the church has been, and might be going.

Feeling emboldened by the boldness of others, I picked up a marker and decided to write in some local history of national significance, fresh in my mind from scanning through our congregational archives in preparation for this anniversary weekend..  Finding the early 1960’s I wrote “Columbus Mennonite pioneers dual-conference affiliation status.”

As I stepped back to admire the updated history, much to my surprise, who should be walking along the timeline but Ervin Stutzman, the Executive Director of Mennonite Church USA.  He was checking the timeline against an extensive and somewhat official looking chronology of church events on his electronic device.  I pointed out to him the recent addition.  Even more to my surprise, he pointed to his device and said, “Yep, already had that.”  And sure enough, there it was.

If you have no idea what dual-conference affiliation means, that’s fantastic.  A very brief explanation is that there are two main historically separate Mennonite groups in North America.  When students in Columbus started meeting informally in the late 50’s and chartered membership in a new congregation in 1962, they were coming from both of these traditions.  Rather than choosing one, they decided to do something that had never been done – To work with the leaders of both groups and be a dual-conference affiliated congregation.  This became official in 1964.  (**Rainbow Mennonite Church in Kansas City also became a dual-conference congregation around this time.)   It was the leading edge of a trend.  In 1969 two seminaries, one from each tradition, moved onto the same campus in northern Indiana.  In the decades that followed other congregations would become dual affiliated.  In February of 2002 the two groups officially joined to become Mennonite Church USA in this country, and Mennonite Church Canada.

Origin stories are important.  They not only set a trajectory for what follows, but they form an ethos.  They establish a way of being.  In some cases they can be as important as DNA, transferring messages from one generation of cells, or people, to the next.

So when Genesis begins with the Creator declaring creation to be good, and, indeed, very good, it’s more than just an evaluation of a completed project.  It’s a statement about the fundamental nature of materiality and embodiment.  Goodness, Divine goodness, courses through the fabric of existence, through the veins of our bodies, right here and now.

When Jews remember their founding story of being enslaved in Egypt, delivered from bondage, and given the Torah as a guide for living, it’s more than just an ancient event.  Each new generation is to identify with having been enslaved, and delivered, and to live in such a way that keeps themselves and others free from bondage.

When Jesus is gathered at table with his closest companions, and he takes, and blesses, and gives the bread and the cup, and names it as his body and blood, he is inviting everyone willing to receive it to become his body, to be enlivened by his life-blood.  And so we re-enter into this living memory every time we take communion.

These origin stories transfer messages from one generation to the next.  They tell the community who they are.

Now, granted, that’s a pretty elite class of stories to put alongside the founding of this congregation.  I don’t mean to overstate the case.

But here’s what I find especially noteworthy about the establishment of Columbus Mennonite Fellowship which became Neil Avenue Mennonite Church which became Columbus Mennonite Church:

In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  I’ll say that again.  In order for this congregation to come into existence, it had to become something that did not yet exist.  It had to pioneer a new way of being in the world.  Like that lovely phrase from John writing to his community in the letter we know as our New Testament book of 1 John.  He writes: “Beloved, what we will be has not yet been made known.”  It continues by saying, “What we do know is this: when it appears, we shall be like (Christ)” 1 John 3:2.  In other words, whatever shape this thing takes on, it’s going to look like Christ, and that’s enough to go on for now.

In my relatively brief time here, I’ve experienced an openness in this congregation to become something that has not yet been made known.  That founding spirit is still alive and well, transferred through all of you here, and the hundreds of others who aren’t.  And it’s a beautiful thing.  It’s not an easy thing, but it has a recognizable shape.  When it appears, it looks like Christ, and we learn more about who Christ is by walking towards it together.

Ephesians 2 has more to say about that shape.

It’s got the whole two becoming one thing going on, only rather than the General Conference Mennonite Church and the Old Mennonite Church, it’s Jews and Gentiles.

In Ephesians 2, the whole work of Christ is set up as the work of peace.  “For Christ is our peace,” this letter declares.  And how so?  How has Christ, in the words of Ephesians, “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us?”  It goes on to name the radical way the early Jesus followers came to interpret his brutal death on the Roman instrument of torture and capital punishment, the cross.  Rather than Jesus and everything he represented dying at the hands of the all-powerful empire, Rome killing Christ on the cross, it is Christ who kills hostility on the cross.  Hostility dies on the cross, thus making peace.  That’s what this letter to a little group of believers in the city of Ephesus proclaims.

Christ is our peace.  A peace beyond the peace of Rome, now available to all who wish to enter.  A peace not founded on a reign of fear and terror, the supremacy of one group over another.  A peace founded on a vitality and depth of being that even death can’t kill.

And the result of this peace, is, as verse 15 says, “one new humanity.”  Humanity 2.0 we might say.  Humanity beyond categories of us and them, Jew and Gentile.  Perhaps even beyond homo sapiens, which means “clever human.”  Christ opens up the way for a new humanity, homo pacificum, peaceful human.

Ephesians has a really, really high view of the church.  It proposes that the church is to be nothing less than a manifestation of the new humanity, an embodiment of peace, a post-hostility society in miniature.

I wish the timeline of church history was one of ever greater peace among ourselves, and justice in the world.  I wish even just the timeline of our little spiritual tribe, the Anabaptists, the Mennonites, whose namesake wrote the words to the hymn, “We are people of God’s peace…” I wish we could get this thing at least mostly right.  The two that became one in 2002 to form Mennonite Church USA have already reverted back to 2, or 3 or 10 or more depending on how you count.  And hostility may have been crucified on the cross, but its phantom is on the loose, newly emboldened on the streets of this country in the form of white supremacy.

I wonder if the present moment is calling on us again to become something that does not yet exist.  To not just look for a category to claim as our flag, but to help pioneer a different way of being, and thus make peace.  What you will be has not yet been made known.

There’s the joke about the seminary student who asks her professor how many points a good sermon should have.  The professor replies, “At least one.”  I’m not sure how many points this sermon has had, but I’ll end with at least one.

It’s a phrase that comes out of this Ephesians 2 passage, and it’s something I see this congregation doing all the time, something that springs from its origins.  A number of folks told stories last evening that fit right into this theme.  After celebrating the death of hostility and the possibility of a new humanity, the writer of Ephesians says, “For you are no longer strangers, but…members of the household of God.”

Strangers becoming siblings.  That’s the movement I see happening throughout the entire story of this congregation, starting from the very beginnings.  Strangers becoming siblings.  People who were previously strangers to one another join together in worship, take care of each other, and share in a common mission of peacemaking and justice-doing.  And, over time, the strangers become siblings.  Not that siblings live in a state of peaceful bliss.  But siblings share a commitment to each other’s well being.  Siblings share a household, and share a story.

And when strangers become siblings, you can’t quite predict what’s going to result.  What new thing God might do among us.  What new shape it might take.  What we do know, is that when it appears, it will look like Christ.  And Christ is our peace.


The music of grace | July 30

Twelve Hymns Project: Amazing Grace

Texts: Exodus 34:5-9; Acts 9:1-9

Joel and Abbie Miller



Anne Lamott wrote: “I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Maybe this helps explain the popularity of “Amazing grace.”  The song has been so widely embraced, it spans all kinds of communities that otherwise have little in common, religious and secular.  We are at so many different places – in our life experience, in our ideas about the world.  Grace meets us where we’re at, and so, it seems, does this song that features grace as its protagonist.

A case in point for this breadth of appeal is that these lyrics, written by an English former slave ship captain, John Newton, have also become adopted among the African American spirituals.  Descendants of the enslaved and the enslavers need not understand all the mysteries of grace in order to know we need it.


The hymn “Amazing Grace” as we know it, has a grace filled history as well.  It was originally written as a reading or poem that may have been chanted instead of sung.  It was not even seen as one of John Newton’s finest works in Britain.  One biographer calls Newton , in reference to this song, an “unashamedly middle brow lyricist for a low brow congregation.”  Out of the 150 words, only 21 are more than one syllable.

Despite this, the song took hold in the United States during the Second Great Awakening and the development of shape note singing. Amazing Grace was used during tent revival meetings to punctuate fervent sermons, with added repetitive verses.  It was sung to around 20 different melodies before it became widely known and published with a melody named “New Britain”.

The hymn was printed in hymnbooks passed out to soldiers and used for services and funerals during the civil war.  It is considered a “paradigmatic Negro spiritual” because it expresses the joy felt at being delivered from slavery and worldly misery. Harriet Beecher Stowe first recorded the last verse in her book “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”.  “When we’ve been there 10,000 years…”  Amazing Grace was translated into other languages as well.  While on the Trail of Tears, the Cherokee sang Christian hymns as a way of coping with ongoing tragedy, and a version of Amazing Grace translated into the Cherokee language became very popular.

Amazing Grace continued to give soul to the Civil Rights movement and was recorded by Mahalia Jackson as well as used as a marching song by Fannie Lou Hamer.  It has been recorded 7,000 times by a diverse group of singers, secular as well as religious.  Amazing Grace has been sung everywhere from Carnegie hall to Woodstock.  Johnny Cash often sang it during his prison concerts, he said, “For the three minutes that song is going on, everybody is free.  It just frees the spirit and frees the person.”


Anne Lamott has written openly about her struggles with addiction, the challenges of motherhood, and the general difficulty and wonder of being human.  Grace was a strong enough thread through it all that she included it in the book title: Grace (Eventually).

It would be a good title for the life of John Newton as well.  The song says, “how precious did that grace appear the hour I first believed.”  It sounds like a sudden conversion experience.  But his story is much more one of grace eventually than grace suddenly.

His initial conversion experience, as he later told it, was aboard a ship, during his slave trading years.  He was in his early 20’s.  His ship, The Greyhound, was in the North Atlantic and ran into a massive storm.  Newton feared for his life and did what lots of people do when they fear for their life.  He prayed, and begged God for mercy.  He survived the storm and landed his ship two weeks later in Ireland.

It was a wake up call for Newton, and he started giving more attention to prayer and the Bible.  He began treating his crew, and his African cargo, with more kindness.  But if that was the hour he first believed, it didn’t equate to a radically transformed life, yet.  He continued to make his living off of the buying and selling and subsequent torture of human beings.  He was a slave ship captain for the rest of his 20’s.  He would later write about that time: “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer in the full sense of the word, until a considerable time afterwards.”

After his sailing days Newton began to teach himself Latin and Greek and his friends were so impressed with his passion they encouraged him to become a priest, which he did.  As a priest, he became more and more ashamed of his former life as a slave trader.  He wrote over 280 hymns, one of them being Amazing Grace.  Sixteen years later after writing that, in 1788, when he was 63, he wrote a pamphlet called “Thoughts upon the African slave trade.”  It included detailed descriptions of the horrors that Africans experienced in the Middle Passage, aboard his ships.  It helped shift public attitudes toward slavery in England and became key to the abolitionist movement.  On the front cover of the pamphlet were the words of Jesus from Matthew 7:12, “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.”


I grew up in a church that sang only acapella hymns.  And everyone “had their place in the choir”.   My memory of these hymns also contains the memory of where certain voices sat each Sunday and increased in volume as they sang their favorite line of the song.  I was surrounded by grandparents, great grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, great and great great aunts and uncles.   Throughout my childhood I sat with all of them and learned to know their voices.  When we sing some of the old hymns, memories awaken so deep that I am transported back to that time, when the people in that church were my whole world.

It seems like most of my early memories of singing are connected with a strong sense of community, familiarity and learning about music making rather than specifically connecting to the words. I knew most of the hymns by heart, singing felt like a freedom during a service that was sermon centered.  I did have a special connection to Amazing Grace though.  The extravagant grace spoken of in the song was in stark contrast to some of the theology I heard from the pulpit and experienced in my life.  How far could this grace go?  Could grace, rather than guilt be the driving force behind a relationship with God?  I didn’t have the words to form these questions at the time, but I could feel myself being pulled in its direction.  I wasn’t comfortable with the strict way I was taught to separate myself from the “world”, was grace only for our group?

But I did see grace winding its way through my life, people helping us when we were struggling through my father’s depression, through conversations I had with my grandmother, through the open beauty of the kansas landscape and it’s sunsets.  Grace wasn’t something I expected or even looked for at the time, but when it appeared, I knew that grace was where I would eventually find my resting place.


One of the most dramatic conversions in the Bible is the story of Paul.  Paul was initially what we might today call a religious extremist, a hardcore fundamentalist.  As if to underline its importance, the book of Acts tells his conversion story three different times.

Paul, or Saul, was on his way to the city of Damascus, on the trail of fellow Jews, men and women who belonged to “the Way” as the early Jesus movement was called.  On his way, a light flashes around him, he falls to the ground, and has a mystical encounter with Christ.  The whole thing leaves him in pretty bad shape.  He’s blind and doesn’t eat or drink for three days.

His companions lead him into Damascus where Saul has another encounter, this time with a living and breathing human being – Ananias – one of those people of the Way Saul was hunting.  Ananias enters the house where this religious extremist is staying, and reaches out his hands and rests them on Saul’s shoulders – Saul’s thirsty and hungry and blind body.  Ananias’s first words to him are “Brother Saul.”  This greeting corresponds with Saul being able to see again, something like scales falling from his eyes.  An enemy becomes a brother.  And Saul starts humming, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.”

“I do not understand the mystery of grace — only that it meets us where we are and does not leave us where it found us.”

Paul would go on to write much of what we have as the New Testament.  Grace is a sweet, sweet sound, and it fills the letters Paul addresses to those little communities of the Way, churches, scattered throughout the Roman Empire.

But grace wasn’t a new idea.  Grace, by definition, is a divine gift.  It preceeds human action.  It is that which makes human action, and life itself possible in the first place.  Grace was there from the very beginning.

When the Creator called the cosmos into being, it was an act of grace.  When the God of Genesis 1 declares that creation to be good, it is a sign of grace.  When Abraham and Sarah become the father and mother of a people meant to bless all nations, it is an act of grace.  When the Hebrew people are brought out of slavery, and Moses receives the Ten Commandmants on Mount Sinai, those words, etched in stone, begin not with a human action, but with a Divine action, with grace.  “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery:  Therefore …”  Christians are accustomed to thinking of that as the introduction to the Ten Commandments, but in the Jewish counting, that counts as the first, and what follows is 2-10.  First comes grace, then comes our response.

The Psalmist repeatedly banks on grace in crying out to God.  The prophets are not always graceful in their delivery, but their imaginations were charged with the grace that called them to speak on behalf of the vulnerable.

Grace is a thick unbroken thread that runs from creation, through Christ, through Paul and Newton and Lamott, to us.


I believe music itself is an act of grace within the story of human existence, a universal language that can include words, elevate them and transcend them into a realm of memory and lived experience.  In the last 20-30 years, scientific study of how our brains perceive and create music has come to suggest that it is a “biologically deeply ingrained function.”  The brain has neural circuitry that is dedicated to music.  Music is more than “icing on the cake of human evolution after basic biological needs and developments were satisfied.”  Our brains were formed by and for music and music making.

Music can be processed bilaterally, using both sides of the brain at the same time.  Rhythm, melody, emotions, memory, lyric analysis; all of these things can be processed during one song.  There is also the full body experience of producing sound and receiving the reverberations of sound. Our brain can process music when we are not aware of it.  Even infants express preference for certain types of music and can discriminate tempo and process pitch.

My training and background is in music therapy, which is the therapeutic use of music to attain non-musical goals.  I have worked in a variety of settings with the elderly and with children.  One of the things that always amazed me was the speed with which music can build relationships.  Something as simple as accomplishing a note in unison or playing a steady beat together can create a connection. The connection created through music makes a pathway for healing, motivation and order.  Sometimes the connection only lasts for the duration of the song and sometimes it continues.  The ability to connect through music has always seemed like an act of grace to me.  A surrender to the creation of something bigger than ourselves.


Karma says what goes around comes around.  You reap what you sew.  Everything you put out will come back to you, good or bad.

Grace plays a different game.  In the words of U2, singing about grace, “She travels outside of karma.”

Grace messes with the equation, breaks the formula, presents itself to us unsummoned.

Grace is what makes the person who thinks they can see realize they’re blind.  Grace is what helps the blind see.  Grace is the energy to do something about what we see.

Grace is the thick thread that keeps us tethered to God, despite ourselves.  Grace keeps us tethered to each other, despite ourselves.

It meets us where we are, but doesn’t leave us where it found us.  Grace is the beautiful mystery meant to be experienced rather than understood.  Sung, rather than explained.

In the world, there is a parable | July 23

Twelve Hymns Project: HWB 614 In the bulb there is a flower

Text: Matthew 6:25-29

Three times a year Mennonite Central Committee publishes its Washington Memo.  It’s a little six page pamphlet.  Each one focuses on a key social or political area of concern, giving historical background, policy principles for addressing the situation, ways MCC is involved, and ways for the reader to pray and act for peace.  We get it in the church office.

The spring/summer 2017 issue is about US/North Korea relations.  The cover page includes a large picture of an agricultural field with mountains in the background.  On the ground and in the air are a number of birds, cranes.  With MCC’s permission, we’ve used that image for today’s bulletin cover.

Cranes, MCC Washington Memo, Vol XLIX no 2

The cover page of the Washington Memo includes a caption beside this picture that says this: “View from South Korea into North Korea.  Red crowned cranes are an important symbol on both sides of the border of longevity, purity and peace.  The cranes thrive in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) between the countries because of the relatively undisturbed habitat.”

Seeing this, I felt myself drawn into something resembling a parable of Jesus.  Out of curiosity I did some online research on these cranes and their place in the Korean peninsula.

It turns out the Smithsonian Magazine did an article on red-crowned cranes back in April of 2011.  It’s title and opening line is this: “The DMZ’s thriving resident: The Crane.  Rare cranes have flourished in the world’s unlikeliest of sanctuary, the heavily mined demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.”

It turns out…this is a complex parable.  More on that in a bit.

Parable was a favorite form of teaching for Jesus.  Parables frequently, but not always, reference the natural world and invite the hearers to consider the wisdom on display.  Parables are playful.  They spark the imagination.  They confront one’s way of seeing the world with a challenge to see it another way.  But the meaning isn’t always obvious.

Jesus’ disciples once asked him why he spoke in parables.  He responded by saying: “The reason I speak to them in parables is that ‘seeing they do not perceive, and hearing they do not listen, nor do they understand.’”  Jesus’ words are a reference to the call narrative of Isaiah that we looked at last week.  Isaiah was called to speak to a people who could see, but not understand.  Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time, and even if our eyes work, our hearts and minds don’t.  Parables bring a yellow highlighter marker to the landscape and say: “pay attention here.”

From our reading today: “Look at the birds of the air…Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither labor nor spin, yet I tell you Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these.”

I also wonder if Jesus’ use of parables was part of his subversive mission of bringing good news to the poor.  Illiterate peasants were dependent on the elite literate class to mediate the words of Scripture to them, but the world of experience and creation was on full display in front of them, accessible, a holy text of continual commentary on the kingdom of God.  Jesus finds the holy in the ordinary, wisdom in seeds, and coins, sheep, and treasure, even weeds.  And birds.

Consider the red-crowned crane.

The Smithsonian article reports that they are one of the rarest birds in the world.  Less than 3000 survive in the wild.  A major cause is loss of habitat.

Between 1950 and 1953, over three million people died in the Korean War.  The armistice in 1953 ended the fighting and created the DMZ, a strip of land 160 miles across the peninsula, two and half miles wide, a demilitarized zone, DMZ, between the North and the South.  Despite the armistice, there was no peace treaty, so the two nations are still technically at war.  It’s been widely reported that when President Obama was debriefing our current President on foreign affairs, he named North Korea as the biggest threat to US security.

There’s no industrial or agricultural development allowed by either side in the DMZ.  It serves as a buffer zone for the humans.  For the red-crowned cranes, it serves as a sanctuary.  A temporarily undisturbed habitat.

The cranes are migratory.  They are trespassers of human created borders.  They are boundary crossers.  They are light footed, light enough to walk without threat among the thousands, perhaps a million landmines in the DMZ, installed with the express purpose of destroying life.  But they can’t destroy the cranes, which parade over them unharmed.  The cranes are revered by both sides and are a symbol of peace.  There are conservationists from the North and South working together, however cautiously, to protect and expand the crane’s habitat.  Consider the red-crowned crane.

Parables, it seems, stare us in the face all the time.

Today’s hymn feels something like a rapid fire series of mini-parables – a parable-infused stream of consciousness.  In the bulb there is a flower; in the seed, an apple tree; in cocoons, a hidden promise: butterflies will soon be free.    In the cold and snow of winter, there’s a spring that waits to be.  There’s a song in every silence.  There’s a dawn in every darkness.  How many parables is that?  And that’s only half the song.

It’s fitting that this hymn got a lot of votes from children.  Children are naturally curious.  Kids are able to see things that adults may have stopped perceiving.  They ask questions we may have stopped asking.  Children are inherent boundary crossers because they are not yet enculturated into a militarized world that has zones.  If we pay attention, we may find that children are themselves parables, infused with wisdom, ready to be seen and heard.  Just make sure they’re old enough before you give them a yellow highlighter marker or it may end up all over your wall.

Parables are all around, but they require work on our part.  We are meaning making creatures, and parables are a dynamic interaction of environment and human consciousness.  We touch the world with our consciousness, we choose to find meaning amidst the chaos, amidst the violence, amidst a natural world that does not necessarily always reflect virtue.  Not every observation is hopeful.  We have a tremendous amount of power to choose what we find instructive and what we don’t wish to imitate.

A line from Wendell Berry speaks to this.  It’s more of an un-parable than a parable.  He wrote: “Rats and roaches live by competition under the laws of supply and demand; it is the privilege of human beings to live under the laws of justice and mercy.”  Consider the economy of rats and roaches, and do otherwise.

It’s at this hinge of we do and don’t learn from the non-human world that the living parable of the red-crowned cranes gets especially interesting, and complex.

We long for peace among the peoples of the earth, peace in the Korean peninsula included.  But here’s the catch.  If there is ever to be peace between North and South Korea, the agreements of the Demilitarized Zone would be lifted, the land suddenly a candidate for development.  The Smithsonian article notes that “In the event of reunification, a huge port is proposed for the DMZ’s Han River estuary, where white-naped cranes winter; a reunification city is planned” as well.  Development pressures would be tremendous.  From the perspective of the dwindling red crowned cranes and other species who have found refuge in the DMZ, conflict among humans, rather than cooperation, at least in this case, has shaped up to be a good thing.

Conflict among the humans is not a good thing, but cooperation among the humans can and has put us in conflict with the larger forces around us.

And there’s a parable for that.  It’s an old, old parable.  We don’t know how old, but the biblical material situates it even before the Patriarch and Matriarchs, before Abraham and Sarai and their offspring.

It’s found in Genesis 11 and goes like this:  Once upon a time everyone on earth spoke the same language.  They all settled down in one area together, and had a big idea.  “Let’s make bricks.  And let’s stack those bricks, one on top of another, to form a massive tall tower, that reaches all the way to heaven.  We’re going to make our mark.  We’re going to be remembered forever.  And they were so clever, and good at planning and communication, that’s what they did.  They started to build a massive city and a massive tower.

Now the Lord came down from the heavens to check up on this curious species, the humans.  The Lord was all about cooperation and collaboration, was pleased that large clay legos inspired her kids to play so well together, but was faced with a dilemma.  If they can do this, what else might they do with their powers?  So the Lord made a difficult decision.  The Lord broke up the mono-culture, and cast a vote for linguistic diversity.  The humans now spoke many different languages, and could no longer make their plans and built their great tower.  They were scattered all over the face of the earth, in smaller tribes.  And the place where they had once tried to build their tower to the heavens was called Babel, which means confused.

That’s more or less how Genesis 11 tells it.

In our time the effects of Babel are being rapidly reversed.  We can understand one another and cooperate and collaborate on an unprecedented scale.  There are still places of conflict where we tear down rather than build up, but more and more towers go up every day.  And with them more and more of the other species retreat into diminishing habitat.

I suggest that the question of the parable is, Can we cooperate with one another in such a manner that the Lord of mercy and justice would not want to disrupt?  Can we make peace with each other without declaring war against nature?  Will we merely see, or will we also perceive?  Will we merely hear, or will we also listen to the parables that seeds, and the polar bears, and the ash trees, and the honeysuckle are trying to tell us?

Consider the parables of Jesus.  Consider the parable of the tower of Babel.  Consider the parable of the red-crowned crane.  Consider the words of today’s hymn: “From the past will come the future; what it holds, a mystery.”



Be thou my vision | July 16

Twelve Hymns Project: Be thou my vision, HWB 545

Text: Isaiah 6:1-8

“Be thou my vision” is a prayer.  It’s an ancient prayer.  The language feels old.  When’s the last time you were having a conversation and found yourself saying “naught be all else to me save that thou art?”  I haven’t decided yet whether I know what that means.  But we sing it.  One of the wonders of setting our prayers to music is that we say things, we sing things, without having to understand everything we’re singing.  Sometimes the music and the rhythm of the words are enough to make it a prayer.

The English feels old, but the song is Irish through and through, in text and in melody.  What we have is just a translation.  The original is old enough that no one’s quite sure how old.  It may go as far back as the 6th century, words of an Irish poet, Saint Dallan.  Or maybe it was written a couple hundred years after Saint Dallan and just got attributed to him.  The oldest surviving manuscripts of this Irish prayer are from the 10th or 11th centuries.

Before Saint Dallan, around the year 401, a young man and his family were walking along a beach in the Western part of Britain.  They were interrupted by a fleet of boats, Irish warriors.  The warriors demolished the nearby village and captured the young man, taking him back to Ireland and selling him to a local warlord.  The young man’s name was Patricius.

Patricius was enslaved as a shepherd, spending his time in the wild with his master’s animals, exposed to the weather and foraging for food just like the animals he kept.  He did this for six years.  During that time he had an awakening toward the Christian faith he had grown up with.  He prayed constantly.  Feeling led by the Spirit to do so, he fled 200 miles to the south and got on a ship.  He escaped Ireland, back the Britain, went to a monastery to study for the priesthood, found his way home.  And there, after many years, heard a voice calling him to “come and walk again among us.”  He took this as the voice of God, calling him back to Ireland.

Some of the details of his life are about as fuzzy as the origins of the text of “Be thou my vision,” but it seems that Patricius went about his mission work in Ireland by building monasteries which became places of refuge and transformation in an incredibly violent Irish culture.  The monasteries were places of spiritual formation, but also developed their own economies with craftsmen and farmers and cloth makers and artists.  In that economy shepherds were not slaves, but part of the fabric of the community.  A recent article in the Christian Century telling the story of Patricius, Saint Patrick, referred to these monasteries as “outposts of God’s kingdom.”  They provided a vision of the new heavens and new earth already being realized.  In this way, Ireland was converted to Christianity.  (“The gospel in a violent culture,” June 7 issue, p 31.)

Perhaps Saint Dallan, several generations after Patrick, was within one of those monasteries, praying with his eyes open, when he wrote the prayer we have translated as “Be thou my vision, O Lord of my heart, naught be all else to me save that thou art.  Thou my best thought, by day or by night, waking or sleeping thy presence my light.”

I suppose every hymn is a prayer, but some of our hymns, like this one, are addressed directly to God, using that old word, “Thou.”  This is the seventh of our twelve hymns, and the first to be thoroughly oriented to God in this way.  The other two that will speak not just of God, but to God are “Rain down;” “Rain down your love on your people.”  And “Come thou fount of every blessing.  Tune my heart to sing thy praise.”  In other songs we’re singing to each other: “Will you let me be your servant.”  “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  Even songs like “My life flows on” and “Amazing Grace” are songs that have us proclaiming these things to one another.  They speak of God, but not to God in the second person sense – “you,” “your,” “yours,” or, in our case today, “thou,” “thy,” “thine.”  Even the ultimate Mennonite praise anthem, “Praise God from whom,” the grand finale of this series, is addressed, technically, not to God, but to “all creatures here below,” who are being summoned to do the praising and the hallelujah-ing, Amen.

It’s a good question to ask while singing a hymn.  Who are we singing to?

And there’s part of the catch with prayer, sung or spoken.  Because God, the Divine, the Holy, is no ordinary who.  Not just a larger, stronger, more loving, better version of ourselves.  Those who study and think and write about these things frequently remind us that what we refer to as God is not so much a being as Being itself.  Characterized by perpetual relationship rather than singular existence.  Closer to nothing, no-thing, not-a-thing, than something.

In prayer, we address something, someone beyond our categories.

When we sing, “Be thou my vision,” who, where, what are we talking to?

For the prophet Isaiah, Thou was an overwhelming, life altering vision.  At least that once, told in Isaiah chapter six.

Isaiah was in the Jerusalem temple and saw a vision of a god so large that the hem of its robe, just that bottom part, filled the entire temple, a container far too small for something so grand.  Fiery beings called out to one another, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of God’s glory.”  There is shaking and smoke, and Isaiah is overcome.

The vision is too much, and he is too small, too inadequate to even take it in.  But one of those fiery beings comes over and touches Isaiah’s lips with a coal from the altar.  A holy kiss.  And that’s enough.  Isaiah is proclaimed worthy.  The voice asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” and Isaiah, perhaps without even realizing it, finds himself saying, “Here am I; send me.”  Isaiah is then commissioned to speak to people who, he is told, will not listen.

Isaiah’s vision involves being overwhelmed, then being assured and comforted, then being sent on a mission that by all reasonable measures, will fail.

Had Isaiah been singing “Be thou my vision” right before this, a wise elder may have leaned over and whispered in his ear, “Be careful what you pray for.”

Rather than converting an entire continent, like Patrick, Isaiah’s prayer sends him on a mission that looks like an exercise in futility.

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once wrote that “Prayer is our humble answer to the inconceivable surprise of living. It is all we can offer in return for the mystery by which we live.”  (Source: The Wisdom of Heschel)

It strikes me that prayer is also a great risk.  We risk that it goes unanswered.  Even more, we risk that it is answered.

“Be thou my vision…Be thou my wisdom….be thou my true word…be thou my dignity, my delight.”

We are those who, in the words of Heschel, have been given the “inconceivable surprise of living.”  But we don’t know what we’re doing.  We don’t know how to do it.  We are trying to walk in the way of Jesus and resist violence.  Resist being reduced to consumers.  Resist despair.  We don’t know what will result, but we address the Divine, if we dare, as thou.  Or, to update the language, “you.”  It’s intimate language.  The kind of language that opens our hearts.  We do not merely speak of the Divine, we speak to it.  The Glory fills the whole earth, it is much grander than us, and we are as nothing before it, and yet we are invited to address it as “You.”  You be my vision.  You be my wisdom, my language, my dignity.  I am listening.  We are listening.  I to you.  You to us.  We are praying.  To You.  And when we pray, there is always the risk that we will be addressed in return, Patrick and Isaiah sent into the unknown.  Here we are Lord.  Send us?

This place | July 2

Twelve Hymns Project: What is this place

Text: 1 Cor 3:16

Every fall we have an Inquirers Sunday school class.  It’s open to anyone, but geared for adults new to the congregation.  It’s basically an overview of how Mennonites approach Christian faith, plus an introduction to how this congregation does church together.

Most years I use HWB 1, What is this place, as an opening meditation for one of the sessions.  I suppose I could make these newcomers sight read it to see if they can handle the harmonies, but it’s a test I myself would fail, and is likely not a seeker friendly approach.  We do hope some of these folks stick around.  So we look at the words.  We read them through, we talk about how they reflect our theology.

“What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door.  Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”

The hymn poses a question that it proceeds to answer.  What is this place?  The response de-emphasizes the role of the building as the church.  Followed by an emphasis on what makes the church what it is – people, gathered, who give their attention to the nearness of God.

When Paul wrote to the Corinthians saying “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirits dwells in you?” all of those “you’s” were plural.  All of the depth of meaning packed into the temple, Paul taught, was embodied in the gathered community.  The Spirit dwells in our relationships.  This place is a meeting house for the church, for you plural.

We’ve been looking at the stories behind the hymns we’ve chosen as our top 12.  But the story I pursued here was the story behind the placement of this hymn.  Why number 1?  Surely that was a strategic choice.  So I emailed the Managing Editor of the committee which compiled our hymnal 25 years ago.  Rebecca Slough is now the academic dean at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, AMBS, in Indiana.

She responded quickly, and here’s what she wrote:

What is this place” became the first hymn in the book because the committee thought that the theology of the text reflected the Anabaptist/Pietist theology of the sponsoring denominations. It was a song unknown to all of the participating groups, so did not give any sense of priority or preference to one denomination over another. In that way, it was a neutral choice. The fact that it was written by a contemporary Roman Catholic and set to a Dutch hymn tune did not hurt its cause, either. 

So there you have it, hymnal politics.  Or, there you have the reason why What is this place is tailor made for an opening meditation of an Inquirer’s class.  Our worship book leads with a hymn that summarizes key parts of our theology, with an ecumenical punchline.  The song about the importance of people over building is a product of those cathedral building Roman Catholics.

One direction we could take this would be to reflect on how the church, at its best, has never been about the building.  We could note that for the first 200 years of its existence, the church built no structures dedicated solely to worship.  Instead, they met in homes of wealthier members, and in public places, even warehouses.  For 200 years.  One of the first known church buildings was a remodel of a large house, around the year 235, in present day Syria.  Notably, that building was right next to a synagogue.  Jews and Christians worshiping as neighbors.  Both were destroyed in 256 AD by the Persians invading from the east.

It wasn’t until the fourth century, with the conversion of the emperor Constantine that Christians went on a building spree, financed by the treasury of the empire.

We could explore how the monastic movement was in many ways a counter-movement to the growing wealth and power of the church as the official religion of the empire.  Monastic communities built their own structures, including churches, but emphasized a simple lifestyle characterized by work and worship.

We could follow that trajectory into the 16th century where the Anabaptists and Mennonites became convinced that the call of discipleship was not just for monastics, but for all who claimed the name of Christ.  Their convictions put them at odds with an increasingly conflicted and divided Europe, different factions vying for territorial control under different theological brands.  For our spiritual ancestors, building their own churches was low on their priority list.  One Anabaptist martyr noted that they met, “”there where Christ and His apostles held their meetings, in the woods, in the fields, on the seashore, and sometimes in homes.”

On the bulletin cover is a famous cave in Switzerland where Anabaptists worshiped in secret to avoid arrest.

All of this collectively might lead to a de-emphasis of place.  We are sojourners.  The church is the people and the people can meet anywhere, and they have met just about everywhere.

But here’s another angle.  As settled people, worshiping regularly in the same building, I see this song also inviting us to be mindful of the particularities of this place, this building, this neighborhood and city.  The hymn poses a question that bears further reflection.

What is this place where we are meeting?

In the last year this place has hosted worship services, a presentation by Ted and Company raising awareness of suicide, a talk by Drew Hart challenging how we view racism.  This space has been packed to the gills with an event titled Sanctuary for Immigrants 101: Theory, Data, and Action.  This place has hosted weddings, piano recitals, and a Rise up and Resist community concert. Children from the neighborhood are gathering in this place every weekday this summer, from morning till later afternoon through the CRC Kids Club.

This place, this sanctuary, was built by the Baptists from whom we bought the building in 1998.  We liked the feature that we could see each other in worship.  Before the carpet was Mennonite purple it was Baptist red.  That wall is the exterior wall of the original church building, built by the Presbyterians in 1917, 100 years ago.  What we use as a fellowship hall was originally a Presbyterian sanctuary.  At that time this and the foyer were an alleyway running between the church and an apartment building.  The apartment building now serves as the church offices and nursery, and restrooms.

In June of 1933, when this building was a young sweet sixteen, the US Congress created the Home Owners Loan Corporation, for the purpose of reversing the economic woes of the Great Depression.  Its mission was to assist in refinancing mortgages to prevent foreclosures.  The Corporation was asked to look at 239 cities and to create “residential security maps.”  These maps would parse out the safest and highest risk neighborhoods to issue refinanced mortgages.  The map for Columbus was created in 1936.  The homes around this place were classified as an Area A, color coded with green, indicating it was among the most desirable locations for such mortgage assistance.  Areas such as the near east side, Bronzeville, now King-Lincoln, a historic thriving African American neighborhood, were classified as an Area D, color coded with red, indicating they were among the highest risk for mortgage assistance from the federal government, and so got none or very, very little.  This place is now an economically thriving area.  That place and other red-lined areas are still trying to recover.  What does it mean to meet for worship in Area A?  Color coded green.

What is this place?

Just a few blocks south of here the Southwick-Good and Fortkamp funeral home was once the Clinton Chapel, a stop on the Underground Railroad to protect fugitive slaves heading north.

What is this place?

This city, Columbus, is named after a European whose arrival changed the face of this continent.  This place was once the home of mound builders, earth shapers, Adena and Hopewell, white names given to discovered cultures.  It was a hub of a vast intra-continental trading network.  After that this place became a sacred hunting ground for the Iroquois, for a time, barely inhabited by humans.  This place became a temporary refuge for Mingo and Shawnee, Delaware and Miami, coming from other places, to escape or engage the growing French and British influence.   This place is the site of battles and treaties and broken promises.

This place was once the home of megfauna, large animals, who did not survive long after the humans arrived.  The mastodon, the mammoth, the giant beaver, the short-faced bear, the giant sloth, the saber-tooth cat.

This place was once covered with a sheet of ice over a mile thick.  More than once.  Waves of glaciers, over thousands of years, scraping up and depositing minerals, leaving us with rich land, primed for the spread of agriculture.

This place has not always been in this place.  We are still floating on a thin plate of solid rock on top of a thick hot stew. We North Americans are all currently heading West young man at a rate of about an inch a year.

The hymn says: “What is this place, where we are meeting, only a house, the earth its floor, walls and a roof, sheltering people, windows for light, an open door.  Yet it becomes a body that lives when we are gathered here, and know our God is near.”

This place has quite a story.  We’ve barely scratched the surface.  This place has quite a story, and now we’re a part of it.  For now, we are inhabiting this place.

What is this place asking of us as Jesus followers?  What are its gifts?  What are its lingering wounds?

Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?

All shall be well… | June 18

Twelve Hymns Project: When peace like a river

Text: Job 29:1-5; 30:16-20

In May of 1373 Julian of Norwich was deathly ill.  Close enough to death that she was given last rites.  No one knows what Julian’s birth name was.  She was an anchoress, meaning she had anchored herself, stationed herself, within a small church cell, itself attached to the larger building, like a barnacle on a rock, or a ship.  This was common in the late Middle Ages.  She had chosen a solitary life of prayer and contemplation, committed to staying in that particular place.  It was a tiny world spent mostly inside the anchorhold, food and water handed in through a window.  But it held a promise of opening one’s mind and soul to the vast expanse of Divine reality.  This is the life Julian had chosen, or the life that had chosen her.

Her cell was attached to the Church of St. Julian, which is where she likely got her name.  The church was in Norwich, England.  Julian of Norwich.

Along with her physical ailments, Julian had been overwhelmed to despair by sin.  It consumed her thoughts.  She felt so deeply about this, she wrote there was no harder hell than sin.  That sin itself was hell, inflicting its own awful suffering.

She was 30 years old, and deathly ill.  While receiving last rites, the priest’s crucifix raised above her, Julian experienced a series of visions lasting several hours.   During this time, she felt engulfed in the love of God.  Just immersed in love.  She saw a vision of Jesus saying to her the words she became most remembered for.  Jesus said to Julian, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

It was an overpowering mystical experience that stayed with her the rest of her life.  She did recover, and lived another 44 years.  Aside from becoming physically healthy, her circumstances changed very little.  With 14th century England in turmoil all around her, reeling from the devastating effects of the Great Plague, engaged in a Hundred Years War with French rulers, she would go on to write about these revelations, living within the confines of her anchorhold on St. Julian’s church in Norwich.  The writings were called “Revelations of Divine Love.”  It’s the earliest known writing in the English language by a woman.  Because of the vastness of Divine Love, which she often likened to that of a compassionate mother, Julian wrote to whoever in the wide world beyond her anchorhold might read her words: “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

We don’t know if Horatio Spafford ever heard these words from Julian of Norwich.  Probably not.  But he echoes their spirit when he wrote the hymn that includes the line, “It is well, it is well, with my soul.”

This is a hymn born out of tragedy.  Chances are if you know the story behind just a couple hymns, this is one them.  Or maybe not.  Today is Father’s Day, and Horatio Spafford is remembered, through this hymn, as one who experienced great loss as a father.

He was a wealthy lawyer from Chicago, active in the Presbyterian church.  He and his wife Anna had four daughters and a son.  They used their home to host meetings of church evangelists and abolitionists, supporting many of them financially.  He was heavily invested in real estate, and in 1871 the great fire of Chicago wiped out most of his wealth.  The same year their son died of scarlet fever.  Two years after the fire, the Spaffords had planned a family vacation to Europe, but at the last minute Horatio had business he needed to attend to.  The rest of the family set off, and he planned to join them as soon as he could.  In the Atlantic their ship was rammed by a British vessel also on its way to Europe.  As their ship went down, Anna was able to grab on to a piece of floating debris and was rescued, but the four girls drowned.  When she arrived in Wales nine days later, Anna sent Horatio a telegram that said: “Saved alone: what shall I do?”

He left Chicago immediately to be with Anna.  On the way, the story goes, his ship passed near the spot where the other had gone down.  Horatio was moved to write this hymn as they kept sailing.  “When peace like a river, attendeth my way, when sorrows like sea billows roll, whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say, it is well, it is well with my soul.”  The sea billows of sorrow in the first verse are more than metaphor.  He was riding them as he wrote.

Phillip Bliss, who soon after wrote the musical composition, named the tune Ville du Havre, which I have no idea if I’m pronouncing right.  It was the name of the sunken ship.  And the sorrow continued.  Horatio and Anna had another child, a son named after Horatio, who also died of scarlet fever, when he was four.

In brushing up on the details of this story, and deciding to make a link to Julian of Norwich, I hadn’t realized the time span between them  is such a round number.  The tragedy and the hymn of response were in 1873.  It was exactly 500 years after Julian had her vision of Christ that all shall be well.

In looking for a biblical companion to this story, one need look no further than Job.  The scripture declares Job a blameless and upright man, who feared God and turned away from evil.  Job is wealthy.  He is generous with his wealth.  He has many children, seven sons and three daughters.  But Job becomes a pawn in a rivalry between The Lord and the Satan.  In Hebrew, The Satan means “The accuser,” and the Satan accuses Job of being righteous only because of his prosperity and the relative ease of his life.  The Satan challenges the Lord to take away Job’s wealth and his children, and see if the righteous Job still praises God.  The Lord accepts the challenge, and Job loses everything, but still blesses God’s name.  The Satan comes up with another challenge, and the Lord takes away Job’s health, such that he’s confined to a bed, miserable.  Most of the book of Job is poetic dialogue between Job and his three friends, with “friends” in heavy quotes.  These friends spout the prevailing theology of the day to explain Job’s circumstances, which Job eloquently, and sometimes sarcastically, rejects.

And here’s a thread that runs through all three stories – Julian, Horatio and Anna, and Job.  Julian had been loaded down with fear and guilt associated with sin.  Job’s friends defend the orthodox theology of their time, that good fortune is a sign of God’s blessing, and tragedy is a sign of God’s punishment for sin.  What have you done wrong Job, to offend God?  As best I can tell, in what’s been written about their lives, Horatio and Anna were confronted with similar accusations.  When they returned to the US, church leaders suggested to them that their daughters’ fate at sea was God’s punishment against their family for sin.  It was enough to cause them to leave the church.  They eventually formed their own sect, called the Overcomers, and moved to Jerusalem to found the American Colony.  That’s a fascinating story in itself, if you want to look into it.

One wonders if these questions of sin and punishment were already haunting Horatio in the writing of the hymn, or, if not haunting, if he was already pre-empting his “friends” in the writing of verse three.  Our verse three starts with “Redeemed, O the bliss of this glorious thought…” and then sticks with the original lyrics after that.  But the original writing says this:

“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!—
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!”

I’ve always thought it strange that a song born out of grief goes so quickly in this theological direction.  Why did Horatio feel compelled to write an entire verse about sin?  But now knowing this additional part of the story, I’m guessing this is what is going on.  This was perhaps Horatio’s way of expressing what Julian of Norwich and Job also felt they had to declare.  That the pain in their lives was not a punishment from God.  That God was fully aware of whatever sin might be in their lives, but wasn’t counting it against them.

One of the potential challenges of a hymn like this, or a story like Julian, is that it can make the process of grief and sorrow appear too clean, too easily resolved.  One minute you’re on your death bed and wracked with guilt, the next minute you’re caught up in blissful communion with the love of God which alters your consciousness for the rest of your waking days.  One minute sorrows like sea billows are rolling all around, the next minute you declare with gusto “It is well, it is well with my soul.”  The entire life-long work of grief gets condensed into a few lines.

It’s one of the reasons the book of Job is so compelling —  Job’s grief, his exasperation with his lousy friends, his wrestling with God, his protests and shaking his fist at the universe.  This is most of the book of Job.  It is real and it is raw.  And when God finally does appear, it is not a revelation of all-encompassing love.  It is a revelation of the utter tininess of Job’s life and troubles in the vast creation.  The Lord appears to Job in a whirlwind.   It’s not exactly comforting, but it tells another dimension of the human journey through loss and sorrow.  Our ego confronts the vastness of the world outside the tiny anchorhold we thought was the whole of reality, and slowly we come to terms with our small place in the huge unfolding mystery.

To Julian of Norwich, God says “You are everything.”  To Job, God says “You are almost nothing.”  And Horatio and Anna Spafford likely lived between these two revelations their whole life.  And so do we.  I am everything.  I am almost nothing.

We do not come lightly and easily to the place of saying “It is well with my soul.”  But in singing the words over the years, we might come to experience them in new depths each time.

So, just one more thing to tie in here.  And now I invite you to be aware of the comforter that you’re leaning against.  Feel it against your back, look around at others in front of you.  These lovely works have been pieced together and knotted by many of you over the last year.  Today we will end our service by blessing these comforters and singing another of our Twelve Hymns, “The Lord bless you and keep you.”  We’ll send them up to Mennonite Central Committee which will send them where they are most needed.  Often they go to refugee camps.  The Spafford family story of losing children en route has been re-lived by many of these refugees desperately fleeing violence.  The places that receive the survivors, like our own country, serve as an anchorhold onto something solid.  These comforters are a small revelation in themselves.  That there is love and compassion, and we all need it.

May it be well with your soul, and may these comforters, wherever they end up, do the very thing they are named for.





Endless song: Sacrament, Seeger, and the Sirens |June 11

Twelve Hymns Project: My life flows on

Texts: Psalm 46; 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2



Back in the fourth century the great North African theologian Augustine wrote that a sacrament is “an outward sign of an inward grace.”  It’s a phrase that stuck.  Many Christian denominations still use this as a definition for sacrament.  An outward sign of an inward grace.

Through the centuries the Western Church developed the rituals and meaning of sacraments, eventually recognizing seven: Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist or Communion, Reconciliation or Confession, Anointing the Sick, Marriage, and Holy Orders or Ordination.  These signs are outward.  They are enacted, spoken, even tasted.  They involve material reality: water, oil, bread and wine, bodies.  Through these things, one experiences the Presence of God, an inward grace.  Eventually the church taught that although not everyone had to receive every sacrament, the sacraments were necessary for salvation.

It’s quite a thing for an institution, and its leaders, to hold the means of salvation.  To be the access point for experiencing the grace of God.  That’s a lot of power.

During the 16th century various Anabaptists questioned and ultimately rejected this notion of salvation and the sacraments.  They still practiced many of them, but debated whether they were “ceremonies,” “witnesses,” or “mere symbols.”  The Anabaptists emphasized the life of the Spirit rather than the authority of the institution.  The broader Protestant idea of the priesthood of all believers taught that one need not go through an ordained priest in order to have access to God’s grace.  All this led to a greater leveling of power, a democratization of the sacred.  Later generations of Anabaptists, from whom Mennonite come, rarely used the language of sacraments.

More recently, in 21st century North America, we’re reconsidering the sacramental.  Marlene Kropf, a leading voice in Mennonite worship, has proposed the idea of “Singing as a Sacrament.”  She writes this: “It may be that Mennonite detachment from the sacramental tradition has caused us to overlook what is the most obvious and powerful locus of God’s presence in Mennonite worship: hymn singing…The experience of hymn singing in worship can and does satisfy the deep need for a personal encounter with the sacred in a way that engages the whole person: body, heart, and mind” (Singing: A Mennonite Voice, p. 132).

There will be plenty of time this summer to unpack that idea of singing as sacrament.  As someone who didn’t grow up singing hymns or harmony, I’ve experienced the practice as an acquired taste, and have yet to acquire full proficiency on the bass line.  But I have come to deeply appreciate worship where the congregation is the choir and the body is the primary instrument.  It certainly fits with a theology of community, where the sacred is democratized in the voice and daily life of each person.  The inward grace of each individual is expressed as an outward collective harmony – a sign of peace and beauty in our troubled world.  Augustine is perhaps giving an enthusiastic thumbs up from beyond the veil.

And so I find it fitting that the number one song for this Twelve Hymns series, the first song discussed and the top voted getter, is a song about singing.  “My life flows on in endless song…how can I keep from singing?”

The sermons this summer will take the song or songs of that week as their starting point.  We’ll look more closely at the words we’re singing and their relation to scripture and theology.  Some weeks we’ll look at the story behind hymn, and occasionally we’ll get some commentary on the hymnology.  And along the way, we’ll chew on this idea of the sacramental – song as a vessel for the Divine presence.


On Tuesday Phil Hart walked into the church office and delivered the document that became today’s bulletin cover.  It’s the original 1869 text and music for what we know as HWB 580, My life flows on.  It has remained mostly the same after nearly 150 years.  Two of the most obvious differences are a different title, and our current song making what was once the end of a single verse, verse 2, into the chorus now sung after each verse.

A less obvious, but significant difference is the change of one word in that line.  The original says “Since Christ is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”  HWB 580 says, “Since love is Lord of heaven and earth, How can I keep from singing.”

It’s a change connected to what brought the song out of relative obscurity back in the 1960’s.  Pete Seeger learned about the song from his friend Doris Plenn, who had written an additional verse that said:

When tyrants tremble, sick with fear,

And hear their death-knell ringing,

When friends rejoice both far and near,

How can I keep from singing?

In prison cell and dungeon vile,

Our thoughts to them go winging;

When friends by shame are undefiled,

How can I keep from singing?

Peter Seeger included this verse with the original, and changed some of the specifically Christian language to the more universal language of “truth” and “love.”  And with that, it entered the mix of the many folk music anthems of the 60s and 70s that sung of a better world beyond racism, nationalism, and warfare.

If you’re in my generation, or maybe this applies to other generations too, you’re likely more familiar with the Enya version from the early 90’s, which stuck with the Pete Seeger and Doris Plenn lyrics.  Our current hymn is mostly 1860’s with a dash of 1960’s,  although I’d love to see that additional verse about trembling tyrants and friends in prison cells in our hymnals.

For what it’s worth, when Pete Seeger died in 2014, of all the places in Columbus that could have hosted a concert honoring his life and music, it was this sanctuary that was filled to overflowing with folks hearing Bill Cohen and his friends play the Pete Seeger classics.  I was here for most of it, but can’t remember if this one made the cut.

The Sirens

“My life flows on” has a universal appeal, and all versions remain rich in biblical imagery.  We selected two especially relevant passages to be read today.  The chorus “No storm can shake my inmost calm, while to that rock I’m clinging” is a lovely summary of the opening lines of Psalm 46: “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change, though the mountain shake in the heart of the sea; though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble with its tumult.”

The lyric about hailing the new creation is drawn from 2 Corinthians 5, where Paul writes “If anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.”  For Paul, the time of salvation was not merely something in the distant future, but something present even now.  “See,” he writes.  “ now is the day of salvation.”

And this gets at one of the overarching big ideas within the hymn.

This is a song about song, and we are indeed the singers, but there’s something else going on with song here that makes this hymn so captivating.  The lyrics start with “My life.”  “My life flows on.”  But as they continue we are directed toward a much larger song.  The hymn is not just the hymn of my life or even our collective life, it’s about “the sweet, though far off hymn that hails a new creation.”  It is something to first hear, and then join.  “Through all the tumult and the strife, I hear the music ringing.  It finds an echo in my soul.  How can I keep from singing.”  Our singing is but a mere echo of the endless song that draws us toward itself.  This is the theological idea that we are not simply moved forward by history, all of the stuff in the past pushing us from behind into what comes next.  But we are drawn forward, lured into the future by the future, enticed by the new creation that calls us toward itself.  Sings us toward itself.  We are led into the space ahead of us where Christ already is.  We hear that far off hymn, and its beauty raises us above earth’s lamentation.

It’s like a reversal of the sirens in Greek mythology.  The Greeks told stories about the sirens who sang beautiful songs from their far off island.  Sailors would hear the songs and sail towards it, only to have their ships broken up on the rocks around the island.  The beauty of the siren song was deceptive.  Its ultimate purpose was to lure one toward destruction.

In the Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus wanted to hear the siren song, but was fully aware of the danger.  So he had all his sailors bind him to the mast of the ship and under no circumstances were they to unbind him.  He was disabled from being able to steer the ship toward the island of the sirens.  The sailors were all protected by putting beeswax in their ears so they couldn’t hear the song.  As they got close enough to hear the sirens, Odysseus becomes entranced with the music and demands his sailors to untie him, but they keep to his original orders, and they sail through and out of range of the sirens, despite Odysseus’ protests.

“My life flows on” seems to flip this story.  We are already close to being dashed against the rocks to our own destruction, but the far off song calls us to itself.  And it is in moving toward that song that we move toward our salvation.  Not merely through the taking of certain sacraments – water, oil, bread, cup — as necessary as these may be along the way, but by participating in that very broadly defined sacrament of song.  It is a universal song, that draws activists and office holders toward it.  People in the pews, and people in the streets.   It is this song that rises above earth’s lamentation, of which our singing, as powerful as it may be, is merely an echo.